Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Life During Wartime
"And the categories are ..."
Free and easy use of the "n" word among white expats in Thailand
Invasion of the Monitor Lizard King

"Alex, I'll take "n" word for 500."

Okay, you're a bleeding heart white liberal who, though despite graduating from a high school class of 500-some Caucasoidz + three blacks, only one of whom could be remotely described as a friend, thought he was making a difference w/$10 mo to the NAACP for a couple years following college and 13 or so years writing occasional odes to the likes of obvious American soul, R&B jazz and blues masters.

Now you're overseas for 4 years and suddenly noticing that, unlike the rootlesss, law dodging expat scum in China and Hong Kong, in Thailand you're encountering an even lower form of expat. After nary a peep elsewhere, you're suddenly hearing the "n" word and variations like 'wog' almost on a daily basis from UK and related Empire castoffs, especially after they've had a couple or 4 pints of "nig-nog" beer and deep into complaining about how "thick" and "lazy" the Thai govermental visa renewal and private service industry and Thais in general are. (And they wonder why there seems to be an increasing distaste for foreigners here ... )

What do you do?

"Hey, you know, excuse me, but I'd really appreciate it, 'mate', if you'd stop throwing that word around."
That's my polite approach, usually met with derisive laughter followed by a witty rejoinder like "Wha' word? You mean n****? That word? Why, you got a n***** gran'fatha' or sompthin', have you?"

Then I go into my 'it's a dangerous, ugly, loaded word where I come from used only by bigoted scum and, in the case of blacks themselves, yeah, sometimes, but it's their business and nothing for whites to be tossing around' rap.

Then comes the "it's only a word" or "they use it" and "What do you call them anyway, 'Colored?' 'KNEEGROWS?' It's the same thing almost ... and what are you lecturing us on bigotry when your country is bombing the shite outta little brown wogs in the Middle East..."

Ugly, any way you cut it. It's then that I long to mystically conjure up W, a black American occasional e-mail pal of mine from New York. He's Ivy League educated, white collar and very large and very articulate. "Don't mind me, Justin," he said to me once during some kinda excitable, good-natured (non-racial) barroom discussion in New York. "I'm just a big, angry black man." He'd explain it terms they understand.

But moving on, let's try Thai Monitor Lizard Kings for $200. I was lounging on a low slung couch, my back to the floor-to-nearly ceiling front window of my Faulty Towers lodgings last Sunday feeling tremendously stupified, hot and generally guilty while watching the History Channel.

Here I was in the exotic Land of Smiles, an entire day to do whatever I choose - visit another temple, practice Thai with natives, watch the waves, do volunteer work at the local discarded dog shelter or orphanage - and instead I'm zombied out watching a show about WWII Japanese germ-warfare experiments in China. Maybe I should see what's on Oprah?

Then came a scratch-scratch-scratching on the window. I was alone as far as I knew and wondered who-what-the-hey might ... turned slowly from the horrific black and white archival footage of Unit 731 to confront another sort more immediate primal horror. It was a beady eyed, lengthy dragon-like lizard which had reared up on its hindquarters enough to peer in the window and claw, with what appeared to be enormous talons, at the glass. Its tongue snaked out as I yelped and lurched back, nearly falling from the couch.

"Fuggin' hell!" I screamed to no one in particular. What to do? I vaguely recalled seeing something similar in a seedy Florida reptile farm, a Monitor Lizard - a form of the dangerously swift and occasionally lethal Komodo Dragon.

I don't think a broom handle would cut it, I thought glancing around for something, anything to evict the prehistoric looking unwelcome lodger and finding nothing suitable such as a stun gun, I ran. Out the back, across a dusty lane scampering to Faulty Towers II where I found only the 20-year old maid/waitress/Girl Friday with minimal English skills. "Ah...big! Big! Animal!" I gasped. "My house! Help me? Please?" She was puzzled. "Jussin make no happy same-same shiny toilet?" she asked. "Gin? Jussin happy I make gintonic number one boom-boom gintonic?"

"No!" I gestured towards my quarters. "Big no-good bad animal!" I pulled out a tattered generally useless Brit-centric pocket Thai phrase and vocabulary book bequeathed to me by a leaving expat and flipped through the vocab pages..."lessee, 'Leprosy', 'Leprosarium' no., 'Lice', no, 'Litigation,' uh...damn, no 'Lizard.' None. 'Bangers and mash,' Useless. Phrases ... okay, 'I would like to book a business class ticket to Glasgow promptly Thursday next at 3 p.m. ...' No. 'Excuse me, is your sister, Promporn Rojjanasukchai also the lass who observes Boxing Day?'

Eventually, I pulled her over to the house and pointed out the window at Godzilla's little brother. She gasped and smiled. "Ahhh! (String of Thai followed by ..) Good! Taste very good!"

The local Monitor Lizard Police were eventually phoned as a small crowd grew outside Faulty T-I's gate to watch the action, which initially wasn't much. I kept my distance and the King Hell Beast continued to mindlessly scratch at the window before giving up to slowly sort of lope/swagger around the area.

I recalled reading that Monitor Lizards are 'carnivorous' and 'highly intelligent, with some possessing the ability to count.' This did not reassure me as I imagined it tallying up the two legged interlopers and cleverly calculating the odds of escape + meal. The real action began when the MLP arrived in thick gloves, helmets, jack boots, a large canvas sack and a snake choker on a very long pole. A flurry of what appeared to be experienced Lizard Snaring followed and the 3 1/2 foot creature was soon dangling from the snare above the gaping sack as onlookers cheered and he was photographed before disappearing, flipping and twisting into the bag.

I asked later what had become of him. "Police eat him, I think," was the reply. I was not surprised, only a little saddened. He'd put up a good struggle and deserved better.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

New Sensations
If you're not into the girlie bar scene, massages (legit or not), are bored playing pool, can't afford the freight at Hua Hin's several 5-star hotels and assorted spas, eschew golf, dodge real estate investments and developers (beware the Aussies!), have no invites to the King's summer palace and hanging with near-homicidal temple monkeys doesn't carry the charge it used to, options for foreigners here aren't exactly jumping out at you.

There are beaches, of course and a few unorganized seemingly random charter boat trips for lounging, surf-splashing, swimming and riding fatigued looking ponies. And an elephant trek park/paintball combat zone ("Dress in authentic Cambodian army fatigues!" screams the paintball part of the promotional brouchure. No idea if you can also recreate Pol Pot's reign of horror). Otherwise, Hua Hin. so far, seems to be a combo of Peyton Place, mixed in with a dollop of Mayberry and a zinger of a low budget version of a scummy Carl Hiaasen Florida beach town.

At least that's my in-depth and entirely superficial insight approaching a month or so here. but a week ago on a slow Sunday I was fortunate to discover some more redeeming values.

Hua Hin sports an utterly charming, small, airy train station. Shaded under palms, cozy, wooden, red and white and set in a small park along the north-south rail line that bisects Hua Hin, it's so idyllic that one's immediate impulse is to simply use it: buy a ticket from the visor shaded agent and hit the rails. Where to go? Well, the train schedule isn't on a flipping LED read-out but carefully inscribed in classic penmanship in English and Thai in white paint on a blackboard. It's as if the schedules and routes haven't changed for 50-years. And perhaps they haven't.

Bilingual wooden sign shingles hand from the doors of the neatly arranged, side-by-side depot offices. Luggage, ticketing, 1st and 2nd class waiting rooms all look as if they're awaiting Maugham or Kipling to chug through on a steam train to the Malaysian or Burmese borders. Built in the late 'teens or early 1920s, I believe, it has a laid-back, colonial/Thai ambiance that the likes of Spielberg, Ron Howard or Disney would kill for as a movie set.

A self-described "half-Cypriot, half-Irish" (English passport and birth) expat-since-on-the-lam, M, introduced me to the joys of train spotting-Thai style as we drifted around on a lazy Sunday afternoon looking for a mission other than sitting and drinking and pretending to think. "Les' go to the train station," M said. "Grab some cheap noo'les an' wa'ch the worl' go by."

A deal. We ordered up some shamefully inexpensive Thai fare at one of the several rickety, outdoor eatieries across from the station and sat in the shade watching a few passenger trains and one cargo train slowly come and go while marveling at the station's time machine-like cast in the past aura. He told me about a 10 or so hour rail trip he'd made from the station a few years ago to Malaysia (two trains daily to the Malaysian border) on a whim.

"It was lovely," M enthused. "Just the rails, the rhythm, a pint in a sleeper car, rolled m'self a spliff and watched the jungle and all click by. Met some lovely, lovely people. Got to Malaysia, didn't come back for 5 days and finally make me way back. Boss says, 'Where you been?' 'Malaysia,' says I."Ah' he says. 'On the train were ya?' I says, 'Yes, actually.' He laughs and says he's done it, too. Never paid me for the time off, o'course. But he didn't gi' me the sack."

I was sorely tempted to follow his example. I had my passport, the next train to Malaysia arrived in about 25 minutes, I had enough baht on me to carry the fare and maybe some cheap lodging ...but nah. Not that irresponsible yet.

"Bes' sleep I eve' had," M continued. "Dunno if it was the train rhythm,rails and all, or wha' .. like that old American song ... " He began humming City of New Orleans.

M's a romantic,but thoroughly mostly irresponsible. Since our Sunday he's disappeared, suddenly leaving, according to the low-rent, expat mojo wire, a scattering of unpaid debts and a burned, small-time ganja deal in ashes. (I told you this was Peyton Place). I initially thought he'd joined Gladys Knight and the Asia Pips for the Midnight Train to Malaysia, but he hadn't even borrowed enough for decent train fare before splitting. However, before his sudden exit he was good to me and in exchange for noodles, a beer and motorbike gas money he also introduced me to another side of Hua Hin after we'd soaked in the railway ambience.

"Wouldja fancy mee'in' up wi' a real Thai fambly?" he asked. He'd been courting the mother until she got a better offer from Switzerland about 6 mos. ago; but M assured me he was still welcome despite her absence.

He cautioned me to prepare myself for a shock. "They aren' well off by any means," he said. "Very shabby quarters ..." I braced myself for something along the lines of of my shanty town visit but after we pulled into the family's area on M's rattling motorbike, it was clear that his idea of "shabby" might need redefining. Though smack next to the two lane highway into Hua Hin, the home was solid, mostly plaster and concrete, very clean and with new faux marble black and white floral motif flooring. Minimal electrical service and no running water, though.

M's ex's 24-year-old rather Indian-looking, English-speaking son - the result, the son told me later, of a one-week-stand between a visiting Indian pilot from Maldives and his mother - was outside putting the finishing touches on a quaint, cozy frond-roofed, bamboo beamed roadside karaoke bar he was building outside the home. He introduced himself simply as "S"and showed me a new sign in Christmas lights he'd designed on an enormous shellacked wooden slab. "S Karoeke Star Bar" it read, complete with a star to twinkle later. He hopes to plug it all in and open by the end of July. You're all invited if you're in the area.

S's barefoot, 3-year-old daughter and her three slightly older cousins all rocked and rolled and pushed one another on the gravel, mud and dust on a large log alongside the highway. No TV, no video games, or even swings, slides or a Welfare Services-sanctioned public park nearby. Just jungle-like foliage and a filthy, trash-strewn muddy klong, but S, between his building duties, kept a close eye on them and shooed them away when they teetered too close to the freeway.

It was then that I took the opportunity to unleash my pathetic Thai language skills, beyond greetings, thank you, and where is the toilet. An American friend with better language skills and more adult experience than me here had emailed me with a tip.

My absolute most useful Thai phrase for ingratiating oneself is to compliment a parent ontheir children. (phonetically spelled) "Luke chai/sow(male child/female child) na rock, krub!"(Your son/daughter is loveable) Works wonders. But be prepared for a blizzard of Thai you won't understand. "sorry, I don't understand" is "Kor toad, my cow jai, krub," he'd written.

I dredged it out of the memory banks and stuttered it out. S cocked his head, looked momentairly puzzled and then beamed. His smile momentarily outshone the 40-watt bulbs in the budding "Star Bar." "Oh, thank you!" he said. And, as predicted, unleased a blizzard of Thai. I blanked on "kor toad, by cow jai krub" but he quickly got the message

It was then that S's elderly uncle (actually, probably about my age), a sinewy, small, heavily tattoed Thai version of Ray Bradbury's Illustrated Man appeared as if a deux ex-machina to rescue me in his bare chest, floppy shorts and flipflops with a couple of Thai beers. I'm not big on body art but this guy's tattoo work, a pale blue, elaborate baroque quasi-psychedelic jungle foliage creation covering his entire upper body, save neck and arms, - was stunning.

Through S's translation,he accepted thanks from M and I for the beer and soaked up the compliments for his self-decoration/mutilation. He added that the skin canvas was done by hand by a friend of his with bamboo needles and homemade ink in three days. Oh yeah...and it was done while he was serving time in prison for (an unspecified) crime that he (naturally) did not commit.

"Yes, very painful," S told me after I'd asked the obvious question. "But my uncle wants to know if you want one also. His prison friend did his, but he can do one for you himself for 1,500 baht."

I demurred, despite the bargain. S himself said he disliked tattoos and nodded in agreement.

"What did his wife, your auntie, what did she think of it when she saw it? When he was out of prison and came home?" I asked S.

He laughed. He already knew the answer but asked his uncle again who paused, then grimaced and replied in Thai. "He says she did not like it," S said. "He said it was almost one month after he came from prison that she would even touch his body."

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The King, (Queen) and I
Thailand's royal couple, King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his wife, Queen Mom Rajawongse Sirikit (translated: "Glory and Splendor of the Kittiyakara family") are the world's longest reigning monarchs. He celebrates his 60th year on the throne this year, but we go back a long way, the King, Queen and I. I recall seeing them in a limo and waving wildly when I was last here in 1963. He was no JFK, but otherwise extremely cool and cloaked in not a little mystery and intrigue, even for a slightly more curious-than-average 10-year-old farang boy.

His Royal Majesty was born in the US where his father was a surgeon, and educated in Switzerland. King B plays jazz sax and has jammed with the some of best of the old mainstream masters, including Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Lionel Hampton and Benny Carter. He was frequently photographed in shades through the years because he is blind in one eye from a mysterious auto accident and ascended the throne after the equally mysterious death of his older brother, a death that some whisper the King of Thai Swing may have had a direct hand in.

Queen Sirikit was a stone cold babe, pure and simple. She was perhaps my first Asian fantasy woman, when I was almost too young to understand what I was feeling on seeing her pictures and during my one, very brief in-person glimpse.

They are beloved and revered here, so much so that it is crime, lèse majesté, to speak ill or otherwise make light of them. I have been hushed and shushed a couple times since arriving when I impulsively have gone into my slightly inebriated "The Queen was my fantasy babe" rap among Thais and foreigners alike. Earlier this year an elderly, drunken Swiss expat in the northern city of Chiang Mai was sentenced to a prison term that probably would have exceeded the rest of his natural life for spray painting photographs of the King, apparently due to his frustration at his inability to legally purchase alcohol on the King's birthday, a national holiday. (He has since reportedly been pardoned by His Benevolent Royal Majesty and subsequently quickly and quietly deported).

The Royal Portraits are ubiquitous here: him mostly, otherwise together and occasionally with their three girls and one (troubled) male heir in shops, private homes, highway and cityscape billboards, temples, girlie bars, etc and in a variety of poses and decades that span the swinging sixties to present day. It's a cult of personality that exceeds anything I imagined when I first went to China and is nothing that I recall from my time here so long ago.

In China, while the unspoken force of the Central Government hangs like a shroud over a lot of otherwise routine life, in major metropolitan areas one easily sees the easy-going Col Saunders and grimacing visages of Ronald McDonald dozens of times daily; much more so than, of course, Mao, or even current leaders such as Huo Jintao and Wen Jiabao - even in State offices Huo and Wen's portraits are relatively rare. I've never been to North Korea, of course, but I imagine even the Dear Leader must envy the Thai Royal Family's public exposure.

I've become something of an amateur afciando of Thai Royal Family portraits, beginning on my first visit to the Hong Kong Thai consulate on what would become an extended, frustrating and occasonally amusing attempt at securing a "M" or media visa to work here, one that has not ended by the way. I had not seen a picture of the Royal Pair since the 1960s and was momentarily stunned to see that they had aged. (Not that I had, of course...) But my royal fantasy pinup babe now resembled, well, it went like this:

"The queen, you know, Queen Sirikit, she, uh, how old is she now?" I asked the consulate official, a rather stern officious woman in charge of interviewing foreign interloping journalists. She ignored my attempt at friendly small talk but I blundered on. "She, she looks like Tammy Faye Bakker now! What happened?" I don't think my case manager knew who Tammy Faye Bakker was, but the unfortunate inference was probably clear and may explain why my premliminary visa approval took 6 rather than 2 weeks.

Here I've spotted two outstanding photos only on one very small bar. The first is black and white and,judging from My Royal Fantasy Babe's hairstyle, probably taken in the late 1960s. They are in casual, expensive wear, perhaps on tour in a foreign clime though it's hard to tell from the buildings in the background which could be as easily in Europe as a more contemporary area of Bangkok. She's slim, sleek and cuddling a slinky black and white cat and smiling warmly in an unguarded moment at the camera as His Royal Majesty does his best James Dean.

The other is perhaps 25 years later. He's in formal, gold and yellow kingwear, steel spectacles, graying thinning hair and obviously addressing a large public gathering from a high balcony. When the shutter clicks, though, he's interrupted by the Queen to whom he is caught turning and smiling as she peeks laughing around the balcony wall with a small video camera taping the invisible crowd below. In this picture particularly they're less royals and more a couple sharing a private moment in a public arena.

But my favorite is one I have yet to see displayed here. Circulated on the Internet it's easily dubbed "The King Meets the King." Their Royal Thai majesties are on the set of Elvis Presley's 1960 GI Blues. Her Majesty is smartly coiffed in what appears to be white linen and a black blouse, sitting between Elvis in army khakis and her rather stiff-in-shades husband who is next to Elvis's fetchng spiffy costar, Juliette Prowse in a airy, spring/summer-like (Thai silk?) frock. It's obviously a PR set up. You can see the security and press corps in the shadows behind them, but it's a moment of royal chic. Or schtick.

God save their Majesties and my original pinup girl.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Monkey Time
It's back to school time here in Thailand. The only reason I know this is due to a Saturday sea cruise I took with some coworkers, and a German kung-fu master who resembles Lee Marvin and an Australian industrial safety inspector with a passing resemblance to John Belushi.

Children were also aboard our Gilligan's Island type vessel, a small, seatless, blue and orange (Ed: GO BRONCOS!) fishing boat seemingly powered by a low end Sears lawnmower engine. But as the kids were either too young for school or attending Hua Hin's one small international school, they were spared the direct, personal humiliation and frivolity unfolding on the pristine beach where we gently bumped sand after about 50 minutes of ocean, beers and watching jellyfish. I'd say we docked, but there was no dock.

What greeted us was a long line of largely unoccupied beach chairs, some quaint ramshackle eateries, a dwarf selling Bob Marley headbands, and about 12 young scrawny Thai men in swimming trunks doing pushups in the pristine white sand as an older, larger guy screamed what sounded like abuse at them with a bullhorn. About 15 seconds later, another bulkier guy in yellow brief Speedos began slowly rolling over them from right to left. At the end of this homoerotic log rolling he stood, raised his arms and chanted something incomprehensible and then repeated the process from left to right as his submissive minions squirmed and giggled beneath his weight.

Welcome to Paradise. It was like some kind of John Waters warped take on a 1960s Beach Blanket Bingo movie. I watched slack jawed as the submissive whatever-they-weres joyfully sprang up after being rolled and joyfully clapped their hands and chanted a song of sorts at the sound-distorted behest of Mr Bullhorn.

The rest of my party weren't as stunned. They'd seen this sort of thing before. They'd also seen what popped out of the tropical growth shortly therafter: a group of blindfolded teenaged boys and girls in school uniforms with garishly painted faces and large vegetables jammed in their mouths. They were being led by older students who giggled and teased them while making them do vaguely disgusting things with the vegetables and each other on two large, long blocks of ice. Apparently it's an annual, generally harmless Thai educational ritual intent on forging bonds, group identities, and an appetite for sandy wilting cucumbers, brocolli and large, semi-nude men hurling invectives and their oily bodies on you.

"Oh, yah, the schools initation," Klaus, the Kung-fu guy yawned. "Every year, the same." He was not without a sense of humor, however. Later after we returned to the beach from which we'd begun and lounged some more he and his French wife were on the obnoxious receiving end of an uptight German tourist couple upset because Klaus's 3-year-old daughter had been fiddling with some shells they'd collected and compulsively stacked in an orderly row on a lounge chair. "Ach, fucking GERMAHNS!" Klaus muttered. "The same all over the world."

Sunday saw me and two visiting friends from Shenzhen, G and J, plus their Thai "girlfriends" whom they'd wrested from the notorious 4-story Nana Sex Mall in Bangkok, at a Hua Hin tourist attraction nicknamed the Monkey Temple. A couple ex-editors of mine who'd been here previously had recommended a sojourn to the Monkey Temple where dozens, perhaps 100 or more rhesus monkeys are free to scamper, frolic and beg to be fed buckets of peanuts, raw corn and bananas by unwitting visitors who pay 50-100 baht for the privilege of the possiblity of contracting saliva- and incisor-transmitted primate-borne diseases.

"Go see the Monkey Temple!" one had urged in an e-mail after I'd confessed that while Hua Hin seems very relaxed, I was drifting into some kind of tropical malaise missing C and others in SZ and HK. "And the Thai hookers are very friendly. Remember, Everything's Better with Monkeys and Thai Hookers!"

Well, here I was with two of one category, though not with me, exactly. And an uncountable number of the other. I'd begged off on a food bucket, content to watch G try his hand (or not to lose his hand) at feeding the hairy little buggers, some of which were actually quite hefty, strong and disturbingly agile. "Christ!" G shouted, swatting at a large alpha male crawling and pawing at his wallet pocket. "He's trying to pick my pocket!"

I wondered if the monks - who watched impassivly in their saffron robes - had trained the thieving, tick-ridden bastards in order to enchance the take at the largely vacant souvenir counters. There were also two large chipped, faded green plaster dinosaurs perched next to a small grouping of sacred gold painted Buddhas. The significance, if any, escaped me and as I pondered it ("Buddahsaurus...?") I heard G cursing again. I turned to see another hairy primate on his back while a second clung to his right leg, grasping for the blue plastic bucket o' monkey chow. Visitors were delighted, photographing his discomfort while I urged him to remain calm and quelled the urge to yell, "I told you so!"

He finally dislodged both without a scratch. "Now at least I can say I got rid of a monkey on my back," he joked. His "girlfriend" took his arm and nuzzled him for a moment and he smiled.

"See?" I said. "Remember? Everything's better with monkeys and Thai hookers, right?"